Pregnant Asylum-Seekers In Tijuana Being Denied Access To Court Hearings
Friday, February 21, 2020
Photo by Matthew Bowler
In recent months, pregnant asylum-seekers sent back to Tijuana under the "Remain-In-Mexico" program have been barred from entering the United States for their court dates.
KPBS has found at least four pregnant women who were turned away by Customs and Border Protection agents at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, even though they had been given a court date in the U.S. Some of those women say they were then given new court dates for the month after they would give birth. Others were never given a new court date and had their case closed by an immigration judge.
“We told them our names, and the official said that we couldn't board the bus because I was pregnant and already 8 months along,” Karina said in Spanish. She's an asylum-seeker from El Salvador. Karina and her husband fled their home country after she says gangs tried to kill them.
KPBS is using only first names for this story because of safety concerns for the interviewees.
When Karina and her husband came to the Port of Entry early on the morning of Jan. 24 for their initial court hearing in San Diego, they were not allowed to board a bus to the courthouse. Instead, they say CBP agents took them out of line and told them to come back the next day for a new court date.
Karina was only three months pregnant when she was sent back to Mexico after applying for asylum in August. She had waited for months in Tijuana for her number to be called, as part of the unofficial list that limits the number of asylum-seekers the U.S. processes each day. While in Tijuana, Karina says she was mugged twice and had to stop working because her husband feared for her safety and the safety of their unborn child.
Advocates for these asylum-seekers say that conditions in Mexican hospitals for migrants are dire and unsanitary.
“We’ve heard stories of migrant women giving birth while alone in bathrooms,” said Maya Ibars, an attorney for Al Otro Lado, an organization that provides legal assistance to asylum-seekers in Tijuana.
She believes the U.S. is delaying the court dates of pregnant women in “Remain-in-Mexico” to avoid having the parents give birth to U.S. citizens.
“The guidelines clearly state that pregnant women are not supposed to be in [‘Remain-in-Mexico’],” Ibars told KPBS. “So the fact that CBP is not only putting them in it, but prohibiting them from accessing their court dates is just ridiculous, ludicrous, and infuriating.”
Both Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A CBP spokesperson told KPBS that pregnant women are not barred from being placed in the “Remain-In-Mexico” program, but are placed there on “a holistic case-by-case basis.”
“I felt very bad, because I couldn’t see my judge,” Sandra told KPBS in Spanish. She was seven months pregnant when she was barred from entering the U.S. for a hearing earlier this year.
Speaking to KPBS last week in Tijuana, she explained that her case was then closed by the immigration judge because she wasn't at her court hearing.
She left Honduras with two of her children, while two others stayed with family in Honduras.
“I can’t go back to my country because I would die,” she said.
CBP has noted an increase in the number of pregnant women apprehended trying to cross the border illegally. On Sunday, a 27-year-old woman gave birth in CBP custody after allegedly crossing the border near Otay Mesa.
Since Oct. 1, 2019, there have been 33 cases of pregnancy-related hospital visits within the San Diego sector, according to CBP. Earlier this year, a Salvadoran asylum-seeker sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement after she had a miscarriage while in custody.
Reina, another asylum-seeker who spoke to KPBS, came to Tijuana with her 9-year-old son from Honduras. She crossed the border in May and didn’t know at the time she was pregnant. When she had her first court hearing in San Diego in September, she was already six months into the pregnancy, but the CBP agents allowed her to go to her hearing.
A month later, the agents stopped her from going to her next court date when she arrived at the Port of Entry.
“They simply separated me from the group of persons,” Reina told KPBS in Spanish. “They kept me seated for the entire morning, most of the day, till it was about noon. One cannot tell what time it is. You lose track of time when you are there. I think it was about 12. They kept me seated. They didn’t tell me the reason for this. They took me to a detention center. They had me there for a couple of hours. When it was nearly time for the bus to come and take people away, they brought me back to the line.”
Government agents then set Reina’s court date for Jan. 30, after she was due to give birth. A week before Jan. 30, Reina re-entered the United States once again, and was brought to a detention center. Within a few hours, she gave birth to a daughter.
“By the grace of God, she’s fine,” Reina said. “Thank God she’s here.”
Karina also entered the U.S. with legal assistance from Al Otro Lado, and is being allowed to pursue her asylum case while staying with her husband’s family on the East Coast.
She’s due to give birth next week to a son. Her husband is still in detention in Otay Mesa and it’s unclear when he’ll be reunited with his family.
“What we want most is all of us to be here,” Karina said. “Because, well, it’s something singular. Well, it is something that happens perhaps once in your life, and it is something we were both looking forward to.”
Listen to the Podcast Episode
Women who are pregnant are having their asylum hearings in San Diego delayed or canceled, according to KPBS investigation. Plus, a second set of people detained for possible exposure to Covid-19 are released from the Miramar air station. And the San Diego Bar Association tries to educate voters about judge candidates.
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Additional reporting by Matthew Bowler
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